from the strength-in-numbers dept
We’ve long covered the trend of communities building their own broadband networks. It’s a movement directly created by decades of anger at telecom market failure, poor service, and monopolization. But since 2015, Vermont officials have taken things to an entirely different level.
In 2015, the state legislature greenlit the creation of Communications Utilities Districts (CUDs). CUDs are effectively just coalitions of towns or cities with an eye specifically on building out affordable fiber broadband networks at scale. In 2021 the Vermont legislature passed Act 71, which ensured CUDs would play a key role in expanding affordable fiber access.
The decision was perfectly timed. In the seven years since the state first took action, more than a dozen CUDs have been established or are currently under development. And those CUDs are perfectly positioned to benefit from the $200 to $300 million Vermont is expected to receive in broadband funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Many of these CUDs are exploring the option of open access fiber networks, which allow multiple ISPs to come in and compete in layers on the same underlying network. We recently examined this as a major pathway toward shoring up mediocre U.S. broadband access in our recent Copia report: Just A Click Away: How To Improve Broadband Competition.
I recently talked to Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) Executive Director Christine Hallquist, who took her experience from rural cooperative electrification efforts and applied those lessons to rural broadband:
“We have over 400 volunteers working on boards throughout the state, putting a lot of their own sweat, equity, and brains into doing this,” she said. “I’m talking about on boards, representatives on the CUDs and helping the CUDs be successful. There’s a lot of passion here to get this done.”
There’s a not insubstantial chance that Vermont delivers affordable fiber optics to every resident in the state over the next decade thanks to the CUD model they’ve developed. And yet most federal telecom policy conversations still treat community broadband as a strange afterthought.
Traditionally, incumbent monopolies despise community broadband, and have done everything in their power to vilify such efforts using a rotating crop of manufactured claims about how they’re socialistic boondoggles. They’ve been a bit less active in Vermont, where rural areas average eight fiber optic passings per mile, making the ROI on traditional private investment not particularly attractive.
Even then, we’ve noted repeatedly how broadband incumbents like Comcast are using every trick in the book to drive this historic round of broadband subsidies (more than $50 billion across the infrastructure bill and COVID relief) away from potential competitors (municipalities, cooperatives, city-owned utilities, private/public partnerships) and into their own pockets. Despite incumbents’ multi-decade history of wasting government subsidies and abusing government programs.
They most certainly don’t want the CUD model becoming established in other states, so I imagine there’re more than a few creative and covert efforts being cooked up by lobbying departments and hired K Street policy firms to try and ensure that doesn’t happen. But for now, the CUD movement is proving to be a very productive, organic, grass roots response to sustained market failure.
Again, entrenched monopolies like AT&T or Comcast could nip the community broadband movement in the bud by providing better, cheaper, faster service. But it’s much easier (and far cheaper) to lobby corrupt state and federal policymakers with an eye on maintaining the very profitable, but very broken, status quo.